‘Bel-Air’ Season 2 Reaches Deeper Levels With Stronger Drama and Social Commentary

The second season of “Bel-Air” continues its unique experiment of reinventing a beloved sitcom as a serious drama. When the show premiered last year, the hype revolved around how it took its premise, characters and setting from “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” Reactions were mixed but there was no denying the talent involved. This new offering of episodes has plenty to love. There is also a new showrunner in Carla Banks Waddles, who sustains its style but mines the material for richer themes. At the same time, the writing staff is still finding new ways to take certain plot elements from the original series and spread them around, like Easter eggs for longtime fans to find. 

Watching this show can feel like entering a parallel universe where things are familiar but new. Season two begins with Will Smith (Jabari Banks) on his own, living with best friend Jazz (Jordan L. Jones). When we last saw Will, he had stormed out of his adopted mansion and family after discovering his uncle, Phil (Adrian Holmes), and aunt, Vivian Banks (Cassandra Freeman), had lied to him about the fate of his absentee father, Lou (Marlon Wayans). Will needs time away but still attends Bel-Air High with cousin Carlton (Olly Sholotan). He also plays on the school basketball team and hopes to get the attention of a recruiter, while making money on the side street-balling. Also exiled from the Banks’s residence is house manager Geoffrey (Jimmy Akingbola), who angered Phil when he told Will the truth about Lou. Will still views Geoffrey as a good friend and source of advice, which keeps the situation tense with Phil. There will be bigger tensions when Carlton, eager to be accepted by the school’s Black student organization, decides to partake in a protest in response to his sister Ashley (Akira Akbar) seeing her favorite teacher, Mrs. Hughes (Tatyana Ali, the original Ashley Banks), fired for attempting to widen the school curriculum.

“Bel-Air” is most enjoyable when the viewer stops constantly comparing every frame to its predecessor. On its own, it is becoming a good, albeit at times soapy, drama about privileged Black American life, with its own contradictions, in a city like Los Angeles. Although for the longtime fan there are still plenty of traces of favorite storylines from the original series. The writing team seems to have expanded on the classic episode “Courting Disaster,” where Will (played in the original show by Will Smith) joins the school basketball team and lets the ensuing praise go to his head, bringing out Carlton’s jealous side. Here, Will is encouraged to throw his weight around the court by a prospective recruiter, Doc (Brooklyn McLinn), who runs a high-end basketball program that only inspires suspicion in Phil. Where Carlton becomes insecure is on campus, after Will gains admiration for taking a stand against school authorities trying to curb a student walk out while demanding no one express BLM-style slogans. Fans will no doubt be deliriously happy to see Tatyana Ali return to this franchise, doing a wonderful job as a teacher who gets in trouble for recommending books on the Black Panthers and radical feminists to students. It’s not surprising the Beverly Hills crowd would not approve of such content.

“Bel-Air” continues finding ways to put some heart into first world problems that can get unbearably corny in other shows. Hilary (Coco Jones) is building her influencer business with the more established and cocky Ivy (Karrueche Tran). Her workplace stresses consist mainly of arguing with Ivy over securing a flashy drink for a sponsor. Where her storyline works best is when it focuses on the relationship with Jazz. She’s both insecure about what her apparently accepting parents really think, and impressing Jazz’s Muslim parents. There’s a hilariously sweet scene where Hilary goes to a family dinner ready to recite every fact about Islam she’s memorized from the internet. Carlton meanwhile battles with having his medication dosage lowered, raising the risks of getting anxiety attacks over girls, homework or having to give a speech at the student walkout. The material is handled strongly, giving a window into Carlton’s crushing insecurities. The writing also has biting critiques of elite school culture, embodied by a Black faculty member suggesting Carlton could win a major award if he sabotages the planned student protests supporting Mrs. Hughes.

This season also lowers the temperature on the hassles of the adults. Last season, Phil was running for political office and there were moments where the show seemed to veer too much into absurd thriller territory. Now, having lost, our favorite rich uncle returns to his law firm and feels out of the loop. There are hints of an acquisition negotiated behind his back, which could spell doom for his legacy. He may just need to bring back Geoffrey, the cigar-chomping house manager, to help him snoop around for answers. One of the show’s guilty pleasures is watching it convince us there are no butlers in this world, more like stylized henchmen. Vivian has one of the weaker storylines with her new gig running an art gallery. She’s more effective in feel-good scenes looking absolutely shocked Mrs. Hughes has been fired, calling emergency school board meetings and backing up Will when he feels cornered. This season of “Bel-Air” brings back to a larger degree that feeling from the original of Phil and Vivian being model parents. They may be a bit too perfect in scenes advising the students on their protest, dispensing Chicken Soup for the Soul advice, but that was always the case with ‘90s TV. In this series it’s balanced out by believable drama involving Carlton learning to open up more, meeting a new love interest, and Will connecting with Doc’s attractive niece. 

“Bel-Air” also deserves more credit for how it explores class differences within a community. This season deals much more with Will attempting to adapt his “West Philly” character with the formalities of Bel-Air culture. He has the practical social and street smarts Carlton lacks but wants to learn. When the students protest for a Black teacher it isn’t a fad for him, but something urgent and important. On the basketball court his privileged classmates play so subdued, because they don’t need to desperately fight with their talent to get a chance in this world. Advancing in his sport means everything to Will which is why he is so easily lured in by Doc and his promises and ignores Phil’s sincere concerns. Instead of going for too many unbelievable twists in the style of the CW, “Bel-Air” gives its characters real concerns and challenges, ensuring it appeals as more than just a curious reboot.

Bel-Air” season two begins streaming Feb. 23 with new episodes premiering Thursdays on Peacock.